New Historicism is a critical approach based on the literary and unliterary texts by using power relations given in the same time period. In the Oxford Dictionary (online) New Historicism is defined as “a form of cultural analysis which examines the ways in which a cultural product (especially a literary text) interacts with and participates in its historical context, especially with reference to the power relations operating within the society of its time”. This literary approach began in university of Berkeley and California by Stephen Greenblatt in the late seventies and into the eighties. In the Greenblatt’s book Renaissance Self -Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare characteristics of New Historicism are explained. In this direction, in this essay I would like to describe some characteristics of New Historicism by combining with traditional historicism and Michel Foucault’s power and knowledge relation.
As a theory, it suggests that literature should be examined within the context of both the historical background of the author and the history of the critic who studies the history. According to this approach, the time in which the author writes influences the work. Moreover, author’s psychological, social, political background influences the work deeply. Instead of reading the text in isolation, new historicists focus on the elements which include the diversities given outside the text. By comparing it with traditional historical approach and power & knowledge relation; some characteristics will be given as follows.
Firstly, New Historicism relies on the idea that historians create a story and this story is narrated by them. While Traditional Historicism is narrated objectively, New Historicism is narrated subjectively. History is narrated differently in different countries and narrator’s viewpoint reflected the events differently. To understand the plurality in voices, New Historicism focuses on popular issues and forgotten areas. While the conceptions of traditional history were kings, queens, lords the New Historicists focus on forgotten issues and areas such as mountains, deaths, some diseases and, also, marginalized groups. “Traditional historians ask, “What happened?” and “What does the event tell us about history?” In contrast, new historicists ask, “How has the event been interpreted?” and “What do the interpretations tell us about the interpreters?” (Tyson, 282)
The author’s background, beliefs, the time in which the author lived, his or her ideas, political views shape the future of the text. Therefore, an author cannot be objective while writing the text. All historical analysis is unavoidably subjective. Historians must, therefore, reveal the ways in which they know they have been positioned, by their own cultural experience, to interpret history. (Tyson, 290)
Secondly, as Rafey Habib expresses “History” itself is a text, an interpretation, and that there is no single history” (760, 61). In this direction, it can be said that there are two kinds of texts “literary” on the one side, “cultural” on the other” (White in Veeser, 294) and these are a relationship with each other. The history consists of different events, values and these are in constant conflict with each other. New Historicism is less interest in the events and facts that have happened in the past. Through the above discussion, we can see that the history is not objective enough to reflect the reality. Therefore, it can be clearly said that, if you identify the society and the culture that produces the literary work, you know the literary work very well but, no one can go beyond the history.
Thanks to written texts we can access the past. Therefore, we cannot search the reality of history coming out of the text because the history is shaped in written text. (Oppermann, 3) It can be said that the meaning cannot reach its reality and the author writes his/her reality. They create social and cultural values of the people who have different roles in the society. Under those circumstances, it can be said that while an author writing a text, this text can be reconstructed or situated in constantly shifting.
By combining with the culture, Michel Foucault’s power and knowledge relation demonstrate that there is no truth. For him, the truth should be seen as a social product shaped through the power and politics. This product can be a book, a structure, even a play. For instance, a book “caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences.” (Foucault, 23) New historicists criticize the traditional history which supports one direction. From this perspective, traditional historians believe that history is progressive.In contrast, it can be clearly seen that New Historicism is assumed as a role in politics. In addition to traditional issues like the rule of kings with power relations, new historicists search backgrounds. Literature is written by those who have the most power, there must be details in it that show the views of the common people. (Zengin, 25) Some details can be given in different texts as references. Backgrounds are represented in some newspapers, stories, articles even photographs.
Above all, Foucault explains that some institutions have power and the power is produced by them. There is a resistance and the power has existed with it. It should also be added that the power does not take its place in a region; education and science contribute this. The truth is shaped by knowledge and at the end of this relationship, there is a vicious circle between them.
In this context, it is evidently seen that the power is uncertain and formless but constitutes the social identity of the individual and the politician, historian or academiciandirects the power. In a text, this relationship is provided by different sources. A text has been shaped by cultural productions, the author’s background, the effect of the history and the people who live in a particular time. Shortly:
The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s sources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author. The author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction. (Faulcault in Lodge, 292)
The reader wants to have full control over the event given in the written sources. The author cannot describe the event completely. The author tells the story by making it attractive. Generally, the reader chooses to trust the historian. There is no possibility to tell the details even there is a narrator who is a historian. It is clearly demonstrated that historical events ended before the writing process. The historian does not play a role in the historical process. Therefore, she/he cannot have comprehensive knowledge of the events. This can be explained as a “reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and the textuality of history” (Montrose, 24). Thus, it can be defined as “both the social presence to the world of the literary text and the social presence of the word in the literary text” (Greenblatt, 5). In addition to them, consequently, Jerome Mcgann summarizes the sentences given above as follows:
The governing context of all literary investigations must ultimately be a historical one. Literature is a human product, a humane art. It cannot be carried on (created), understood (studied), or appreciated (experienced) outside of its definitive human context. The general science governing that human context is socio-historical.
As a result, as critical approach New Historicism asserts that all literary works produce in a specific time and place. The historicist tries to understand the work through its historical context and investigate the history though the literature. New historicism is a literary theory based on the idea that the text should be examined by taking interpretations of history and cultural, political and historical background of the author whose ideas affect the text. It must be known that the history continues as soon as people live, and, as soon as people live the texts will be written. Anything that has already been edited will be reviewed, handled, rewritten, and researched.
• Foucault, Michel. The Archaelogy of Knowledge&the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
• Greenblatt, Stephen J. The Power of forms in the English Renaissance. Pilgrim Books, 1982.
• Greenblatt, Stephen. RENAISSANCE SELF-FASHIONING From More to Shakespeare. Chicago&London: the University
of Chicago Press, 1980.
• HABIB, M.A.R. MODERN LITERARY CRITICISM AND THEORY: A HISTORY FROM PLATO TO THE PRESENT. Blackwell
• Mcgann, J. Jerome. The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory.
Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
• Montrose, Louis A. Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New
York: Routledge, 1989.
• Oppermann, Serpil. Postmodern Tarih Kuramı: Tarihyazımı, Yeni Tarihselcilik ve Roman. Ankara: Phoenix,
• Tyson, Loıs. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York&London: Routledge, 2006.
• Veeser, Harold Aram. The New Historicism. 1989.
• White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” The Writing of History: Literary Form and
Historical Understanding. Ed. Henry Kozicki Robert H. Canary. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
• ZENGİN, Mevlüde. A STUDY on JOSEPH CONRAD’S HEART of DARKNESS, LORD JIM and NOSTROMO in a NEW HISTORICIST
PERSPECTIVE. Ankara University. Phd Thesis. Ankara, 2007.